Last night I dreamt I was with my ex’s girlfriend, and I was trying to explain it all to her. She was tiny, so tiny I could pick her up, Pietà-style, one of my arms under her back and the other under her knees. As I carried her around, I felt resolved I would not put her down until she understood. But she – tiny and calm, with a face that no one could ever hate – she kept saying that I was the one who didn’t understand. That he wasn’t like that. That he would never hurt anyone. And I was angry and giant-size, in the dream, and I carried her around and around in circles. I wouldn’t put her down, even though I knew I should, even though I sensed she was afraid. The whole time she seemed to get smaller and smaller, but no less brave (contradicting me, a giant!) and no less sure of herself. She knew, she told me, absolutely knew, that he would never hurt her.
There are a couple of upsetting things about this dream. For one, what I was doing was horrible and wrong. And the manner of it, cradling her like a baby while keeping her prisoner: that’s the exact kind of wrong I know to be afraid of. A lot of the violence in my marriage centered around safe places, blankets, bed. A lot of it, to a fly on the wall, would have looked like some kind of hug.
One year, when I would try to sleep, he would sit on my chest. His weight wasn’t so unpleasant, and I could settle into it, breathe. Breathe with a little difficulty, it’s true, but not much, really. Say nothing, eyes closed. Sometimes, it was a relief to feel his body, to feel connected, to know he wasn’t hurting himself, only me, and me not much. Sometimes I even dozed off. Other times, though, my heart would jump and thud, and my mind would go white with panic. The trick was to keep calm, keep breathing. Nothing very bad was going on.
It was harder when he took away the blankets, but that’s just because I’m one of those people who can’t sleep without something covering me. 100 degrees in the summer in Chicago, no AC, and I needed a sheet. I couldn’t have a sheet. That’s really OK, when you think about it. Who needs a sheet in the heat?
It was harder when he shut me in the closet, because I’d get so incredibly bored, and there was no light, no light at all. Flinging myself against the door was a worse strategy than sitting still. Sitting still, you can get calm, you can breathe. But you get so fucking bored.
The first time he ever hurt me was in a bed. It was New Year’s, and we were staying in his high school best friend’s house, in the guest bedroom. His friend had thrown a huge party, and my ex got drunk and wanted to dance. That was a whole thing: he was a quiet guy, not a big drinker, but once a year he loved to get wasted and dance with all his oldest friends at this stupid New Year’s party. I don’t like to dance. I just don’t. I do not like it, Sam-I-Am. In fact, a lot of people at that party didn’t seem to like to dance. Most people, that night, for whatever reason, sat out the dance party. My ex got frustrated, and felt rejected or something, I guess. Upstairs in bed, he wrapped a blanket around my head, tight-tight-tighter. I was scared (but not that scared), and I said something, I don’t know what, but mocking – you think you’re going to smother me? I can still breathe, I can still talk – and with surprising force he grabbed at my eyes through the blanket gouging, poking, wriggling his fingertips around in my eye sockets. No one seemed to notice in the morning, but there were dark red marks in the delicate skin under the eyes, little crimson blots where blood vessels had burst. I remember being disappointed by how much it had hurt, and how little there was to show for it. His best friend and his best friend’s wife drove us to the pancake house, then home. Everything was normal. What had happened upstairs in the guest room got folded into what is normal.
Later, much later, he almost did smother me. That time, I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t talk. I thought: it will ruin his life, if I die. I didn’t want his life to be ruined, but I didn’t necessarily not want to die.
I slept with someone recently who said that, at night, I held onto his arm “like a teddy bear.” He thought it was cute. What if I told him that when I sleep alone, I do hold a teddy bear? And that’s because, in the last year of my marriage, I usually fell asleep holding a teddy bear? This was a strategy I developed after he stopped sitting on me, after it had become something worse: less frequent, but scarier. Weirdly, he liked that bear. He almost never messed with me when I was holding it. It protected me. When I left, I left that bear behind, even though I had had it since I was three.
By Velveteen Rabbit rules, my bear deserves to be Real. But I never want to see it again.
The first time I slept with someone who wasn’t my husband, I woke up at 4 am, sick, and went to hide out in the bathroom. The second time, too. Now it’s OK. I can get through the night. Sometimes I still wake up really early, and then I feel trapped. I’m not scared, of course, but I get bored, lying awake next to someone I barely know. I don’t know why I bring them home. I like the drinking and the talking, I like kissing in bars, by the river, in the train. I like pretending to be someone joyful and free, someone who trusts almost too easily. Maybe I like fooling them; definitely I like fooling myself. When they’re in my apartment, though, I want them to leave. But, I guess, I also want something else. I want them to not hurt me. I want them, one after the other, to not hurt me and not hurt me and not hurt me and finally to prove, by collectively not hurting me – by some kind of miracle of aggregated nonviolent ordinariness – the following: That no one has ever hurt me or could ever hurt me, because that’s just Not A Thing That Happens. This is not logical. It is, however, why I joined OKCupid.
The dream was upsetting on another level, as well. Looking at that girl, at her strawberry blond hair and round eyes, I knew that she was right. He really would never do to her what he had done to me. This girl – the size of an elf, in the dream, in real life exactly my height, my size – had no dark eddies, no streaks of wickedness in her heart, no demons of her own for his demons to come out and play with. She was safe. She was safe because she was good. (This is not true. I know that. But, also, I don’t.) This clear-eyed, fine-china girl was not likely to get mouthy. Not like Caroline, in the song, and not like me.
Caroline says, as she gets up from the floor:
“You can hit me all you want to,
but I don’t love you anymore.”
You know how that’s gonna go, Caroline, don’t you? What it’s gonna make him do? But you and me, we talk back, even though, yeah, duh, we know.
I talked back. I said the worst things I could think of. I spat them, I shrieked them. I said things I won’t write down. I said things I won’t ever admit.
I talked back. Sometimes I hit back. Towards the end, sometimes I hit first.
The dream isn’t wrong. I am a giant, a gigantic gargantuan galumphing giantess with no self-control. Moral compass smashed to bits, lost at sea. And I am trapped pacing in circles, doing harm, hurting people, hurting myself, horrified, horrifying, still never sure where I stop and he begins. And if I tell you this, and you contradict me? I will pace you faster and faster in tighter and tighter circles, I will play keepaway with you and the ground. I say to you: it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts. And you say to me: no, sweetheart, no, it didn’t happen. It never happened, and it doesn’t hurt.